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On the second day of my cross-country trip through the Chequamegon, I skied alone. The temperature was—10° without wind, and the untracked powder spilled over my skis. Making turns was easy, but then a nice downhill chute would dead-end in a sunken creekbed or veer sharply at a 90-degree angle. The uphills were dishearteningly steep. Part of the problem was that I was towing too much gear on a homemade travois, a plastic sled attached to my hip belt by two fiber-glass wands. Hauling the travois uphill was like pulling a dead man.
Despite the extreme cold, I was sweating. Halfway up a steep incline, I had to remove my balaclava helmet so my hair wouldn't become soaked and later freeze. Mittens were next. By removing or adding layers of clothing, I could adjust my body's thermostat to maintain a rough equilibrium. Still, I was perspiring too much. To prevent dehydration, I took swigs of lemonade from a plastic bottle that hung from a cord inside my sweater and windbreaker. By noon the lemonade had chilled to yellow slush.
At 1,400 feet the trail skirted the crest of a hill. The sky was clear and so permeated with sunlight that my eyes ached. From this height, the advantages of skiing the trail in winter became obvious. With the trees bare, the jumbled contours of the land and their glacial lineage can be easily read. In July I had hiked here with my family, leery of black-flies and woodticks and walking in what seemed to be a green tunnel. Now the view extended for miles: north to the Perkinstown Lookout Tower and the range of rounded white hills ringing ice-covered lakes in hollows deep as craters.
This round wooded hill was, like many of the others, a kame—a hole formed in the glacier in which melting ice deposited the sand and gravel it carried to form an almost perfectly symmetrical mound. Because their slopes are so even, kames are often used for downhill skiing. With this in mind, I began my descent through a popple stand, hoping the sled wouldn't catch on a tree. The going was fast. In the hollow at the bottom of the hill, a diversity of animal tracks converged in what must be, during the hours of darkness, heavy traffic. The moraine's up-and-down terrain fosters a wide range of vegetation and wildlife. One finds snowshoehare tracks in the cedar swamps and on the hardwood ridges are the fanned wing marks of ruffed grouse.
When he laid out the Chequamegon section of the Ice Age Trail, Cahow drew a pencil line on a topographical map and hiked the route to see if it was workable.
"Many times, I'd find there was already a trail, a deer trail," he had told me. "Animals lay out trails along the contours of hills exactly as a person would to minimize slope and effort. They seek the path of least resistance."
Clearly there's a question as to whose trail this was, as for some time I'd been following fresh deer tracks, the heart-shaped hooves dragging through the snow in no particular hurry. Visible finally in a stand of hemlock, a pair of does gave me a last go-to-hell look before bounding away. I watched as their white tails flickered off into the pine swamp.
The trail crossed the South Fork of the Yellow River on an ancient beaver dam with open water running at its edge. I broke off a piece of ice to suck on and, heading north, followed the yellow blaze marks on the trees, unsure whether the ridge I was striding along was an esker (a winding protrusion of sand and stone formed by deposits of sediment in the beds of streams that flowed through or beneath glaciers) or an abandoned railroad grade. Narrow-gauge railroads opened huge virgin forests of hemlock and white pine to logging in the 1890s. Before the forests were reduced to stumpage, they were frequented by Indian tribes and by trappers and missionaries. In 1661 Father René Ménard, a French Jesuit, was canoeing in this area when he stepped ashore to search for a portage route and was never seen again.
But if this ridge were an esker instead of a railroad grade, it is a considerably older hill of stone, having been formed by a subglacial stream 11,000 years ago. And against that long expanse, the gap between Father Ménard's passage and my own was slight indeed.
By five in the afternoon the sun was behind the hills and the cold seemed to rise from the ground. My tent was pitched in a hollow protected from the wind, and after changing into a down parka and booties I walked about gathering firewood feeling as insulated and alone as a moonwalker. Now came the best part of winter camping—replaying Jack London's short story, "To Build a Fire." Though I had a Svea stove in reserve to melt snow for water, a campfire would provide both warmth and companionship. Shoveling out a pit in the snow, I laid down curls of birchbark, then pine twigs, sticks and finally logs. My bare fingers fumbled with the match, but then the birchbark ignited in oily smoke and soon a fire was roaring. After a boil-in-the-bag supper, I fed the fire another log and myself some 90-proof brandy. It went down like liquid heat. The temperature was 15° below zero, and in the faint light of the moon, the snow had the bluish cast of glacial ice.